Risk, at its essence, is about the possibility of loss. Risk is never about firm, concrete, conclusiveness; it is about chance, likelihood, probability.
We all know what it’s like to take a risk: we know about risky stocks and risky lovers; risky car purchases and risky nights on the town; we even know about risky professions and risky encounters of the dangerous kind.
We’ve heard about risky encounters of the violent kind as the number of U.S. citizens killed by U.S. police officers across the country has toppled over 500 just six months into the year. Conversations about “risk” have fueled the actions of officers who considered 12-year-old boys in playgrounds a too great a risk to question before firing.
Or little girls sleeping in pigtails and pajamas who would lose their life because the cops wanted to end the risk of a suspect getting away… in the wrong apartment.
Or summertime fun drowned by an overzealous cop who needed to subdue the risk of summertime-swim-race-mixing.
Risk is a very real thing.
There have been, however, conversations about risk of another kind — the kind of risk that shift-shapes power and privilege.
Yesterday, I had three different conversations with white women who wanted to engage in the hard discussions about race and difference. All three women I consider friends in their own right.
The night ended with a conversation with one woman who felt alone in her journey to better understand why more white people weren’t willing to engage in the hard conversations about race with her. Why, when she brought up race and difference with her upper-class, white friends, she was met with little to no response. “Frustrating and isolating,” she’d name it.
“I’ll tell you why,” I’d type under a haze of red wine. “People aren’t willing to risk.”
There’s a risk in first, admitting there’s a problem with race (and by default, you perpetuate those problems through privilege), and, second, doing the kind of work it takes to walk with people through the dismantling of the systems that uphold racism.
Admitting that racism is a problem and working to do something about it puts people at RISK to lose their position and privilege. To challenge the very systems that make your ability to be served and protected by police, to be hired for jobs, approved for loans, to have better educational opportunities for your children simply because your skin entitles you to such privileges is a huge risk.
There’s no guarantee that the work you’d do on the behalf of the oppressed will pay off.
There’s no promise that if you challenge the longstanding private, racist conversations your dad has with his buddies around the Saturday night poker table will faster put you out of his good graces (and hefty inheritance) than you’d see benefits from your fight against injustice.
There’s no long-term hope you can have that if you are willing to risk power and privilege that this country will ever see any progress in how Black and Brown and poor and disadvantaged people experience life.
The risk is just too great. And most people aren’t willing to risk their comforts if there’s no guarantee of hope for a better future. This is why it is often difficult for some white people to deeply engage in conversations and do anything about issues concerning race and class.
We see this kind of risk taking (and difficulty to see it through) with the Rich Young Ruler in Matthew 19:16-22. The Rich Young Ruler comes to Jesus and asks Him how he can have eternal life. Jesus runs down the laundry list of commandments and the Rich Guy is like, “Been there, done that. What’s next?”
Jesus then presents the risk: “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.” (v. 21, CEB)
We know how the story ends: Mr. Rich Ruler decides that the risk was too great — he wasn’t willing to give up his power and privilege to take on a life of servitude.
Many Christians understand that following Christ comes with some kind of sacrifice; it is, in fact, the essence of our Faith. Christ paying the ultimate sacrifice for all of mankind, in turn, makes us responsible for sacrificing something for His sake.
A common metaphorical representation of this sacrifice is found in Matthew 16:24.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (NSRV)
I thought about the risk Jesus was asking for His Disciples to take here. To say no to yourself, take up the cross and follow after Jesus — it was a lot to ask.
I took a second to break down what Jesus was really asking here:
To Deny: ” to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests…”
To Take Up: “to take upon one’s self and carry what has been raised up, to bear…”
Cross: “to bear persecutions, troubles, distresses — thus recalling the fate of Christ and the spirit in which he encountered it.”¹
What Jesus was asking the Disciples to do was to forget your motives, your personal interests, the things that are exclusively yours that create a divide from those not like you and take on the burdens, the concerns, the interests and needs of others, those things Christ has called for us to take on; to bear their pains, their troubles, the things that concern them so we may be reminded of the kinds of pains and troubles Christ took on for us.
THIS is what Jesus is calling for us to do. This is the kind of risk He was asking for.
The difficulty that those who are privileged and in power have with “taking up their Cross,” especially those who are self-professed Christians, do not want to take on the risk of the Cross bearing. The pseudo-interest there is to be like Christ in all His totality would require those who push against the liberative work of Jesus to admit that though they be Christians, they are not willing to risk picking up Jesus’ Cross. They only take on what feeds their own interests, a corner of the Cross that’s easier to bear.
Like the Rich Young Ruler, the risk is too much.
The work to liberate all people from oppressive systems that make Black and Brown skin an immediate perceived threat without cause is the Cross Jesus is calling for us to pick up.
There is a risk in doing this kind of liberative work, and the many people who are working through grassroots initiatives, protests, think pieces, legislative changes, online and face-to-face conversations trying to change centuries-old oppressive systems risk a lot to do this work. They risk more than we can ever imagine.
And the work is not for the faint of heart.
And you may be reading this and realize that the risk to do the liberative work of Christ in this way is too much. It’s too much to ask to risk position and privilege, life and liberty, ability to earn a living and family connection to publicly say that you are for the liberation of oppressed people. You are appointed to churches and denominational conferences that won’t allow this kind of liberation talk. You know that even the mention of race or difference would cost you dearly in areas of your life that would be your proverbial demise.
And, I get it. It’s a risk that you can’t take and it’s a part of the Cross that you know you’ll have to leave for someone with less to lose to take on. That’s just the way it is. For that I have no resolve.
But for those of us who have a call to pick up our Crosses, we have to be willing to do the work of liberation with risk by our side. If we are not willing to risk anything, not willing to take on the burdens of others in the process, even as some learn how to navigate the murky waters of privilege and oppression, then you cannot be fully committed to the kind of Cross bearing that Jesus called us to.
It is, in fact, just that Black and white.
But if you are willing to risk, if you are willing to stand alone and take on the entire Cross of risky liberation, there is room for you.
Risk your comfort, your position, your money and privilege. Risk your isolated living in monolithic community and come out into a foreign land where people with varied kinds of lived experiences uncover the deeply beautiful ways God intended for us to live and be in community with one another because you can, because you’re willing. It is here where risk is rewarded.
On the risky kind of chase,